Excerpt taken from "Night Journey From Rome"
Copyright © 1982 by Chick Publications, Inc.
WHO CAN FORGIVE SINS?
When I walked out of St. Clare’s Catholic church on the morning of August 6, 1978, reborn in Jesus Christ, one of my abiding new realizations was that all the sins of my lifetime had been forgiven. Jesus had washed them in His blood; they had been annihilated; no guilt remained requiring me to perform acts of penance. I could now walk with God, my sins erased, no longer under the burden of having to confess to a human priest and beg his absolution. Truly Christ had released me from captivity according to His promise.
And thus I thought with relief that I would never again have to set foot in a Roman Catholic church building to seek forgiveness, justification, the Holy Spirit, Jesus in the Eucharist —whatever— through the Roman labyrinth of sacramental dispensation of grace. But I knew that someday it might be fitting or expedient, through courtesy or familial bonds of charity to enter a Catholic church building in consideration of the feelings of others. That is precisely what happened in a relatively short while.
Some six months after I was led to the Lord, a young Hispanic and Catholic Detroit police officer took his life in a violent manner. I did not know the young man personally; I knew of him and that he had problems. The deceased and I had a mutual friend, Steve, also a Detroit police officer, Puerto Rican, and Catholic. Steve and I are casual but good friends in the Department, often meeting for lunch “in Spanish” at a downtown Mexican restaurant. Steve is Catholic in name only, largely ignorant of the teachings of his church. But he knows I am a former priest, and he questions me continually about religion. And I witness Jesus Christ to him.
Upon the occasion of the other officer’s suicide, Steve asked me to accompany him to the funeral, stating he didn’t want to be there alone. I readily agreed to go with him as a further act of witness. The morning of the funeral was bleak and bitter cold. We were the first to arrive at St. Anne’s, an old historic Catholic parish on the lower west side of Detroit.
The imposing red brick structure these days finds itself in a disintegrating area of the city, its parishioners having scattered to suburbia. On the front steps of the church Steve and I stomped snow from our boots and entered through the massive doors. Inside a pleasant warmth greeted us.
As we removed outer wraps my eyes began to adjust in the semi-darkness to the remembered paraphernalia of a Catholic church vestibule —the pamphlet rack, stacked collection baskets in a corner, and by the entrance to the nave, the holy water fonts. The odor, compounding incense, beeswax, decaying flowers, furniture polish, assailed my nostrils.
But it had no evocative power over me. I watched Steve walk up to a font, dip his fingers in the bowl of water, and make a perfunctory sign of the cross. But I refrained. Then we entered the nave of the church. The muted light danced with subdued colors from the stained-glass windows even on that dull winter morning. Scores of pious statues loomed darkly about the sanctuary and the side altars at the far end of the aisle. Red and blue vigil lights flickered in separate locations before garish images of the Lord, the Virgin and the saints.
Then I shifted my gaze to the side walls of the back of the nave. There were situated some of the confessional cubicles. In an instant the old revulsion, the fear, the hatred and despair washed over me! I experienced a moment of vertigo and was about to retch. I felt the buffeting of Satan.
“Let’s get out of here; it’s too hot,” I whispered to Steve. Good, simple Steve did not ask for an explanation. We donned our coats and stepped out the front doors into the February cold. A few cars were now pulling up in the hard-packed snow and discharging mourners at the church steps.
I reminded myself, with no further turmoil, “ I am saved by the blood of Christ; I am loved by Him. The bondage of the Roman Sacrament of Penance has no power to wound my spirit.” I turned to Steve and said, “It’s okay now; let’s go back in.” Still my friend did not question me.
We re-entered the building, took seats halfway down the cavernous interior and remained for the Requiem Mass and the funeral rite. I did not indulge in vain prayers for the repose of the poor officer’s soul as the paganish ceremony unfolded. I trusted that the Holy Spirit might have moved him to come to Christ in saving faith even at the moment of his final act of self-destruction. I have not since been back inside a Catholic church.
The Catholic believer is taught early in his indoctrination that Penance is one of the Seven Sacraments instituted by Christ for the salvation of men. The doctrine states unequivocally that Jesus gave to His apostles the power to forgive or retain sins. That power has abided with the Church from the beginning and endures today.
Priests still have the power to forgive or not forgive. For him to exercise that power the sinner must confess verbally to him. He then imposes a penance to be performed and grants the penitent absolution, with the understanding that the penance must be completed. Until very recently the formula of absolution spoken by the priest has been: “May Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and by His authority I absolve you from your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The doctrine is all very neat and well-packaged as presented in the Catechism and Church History. But its historical development within the Catholic system belies that simple presentation. Even conservative Catholic historians and theologians are hard pressed to delineate the growth of the practice of auricular confession in the Roman Church.
To attempt to trace accurately the story of its introduction, its spread, and its final arbitrary status as a necessity for forgiveness of sins is futile. The story involves uncertainties, historical obscurities, hierarchical scheming and theological daydreaming. The final result: mandatory confession by the Christian of his sins to a “duly authorized priest” is so remote from the simplicity of the New Testament that one is tempted to laugh at the gullibility of even educated Catholics. But one does not ever laugh at tragedy —the loss of uncounted millions of souls to Christ the Mediator.
The idea of men having power to forgive sins is so ludicrous that even the hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day were scandalized when He said to the sick man, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” The shocked Pharisees exclaimed, “Why doth this man speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mark 2:5,7).
We have already observed in sorrow that unscriptural beliefs and practices, which later became inseparably part of the Roman Catholic system, began to intrude as innovations into the Church of the early centuries. In the New Testament and sub-apostolic years there was no organized universal Church with a unifying external structure.
The Church as it came from the blood shed by Jesus at Calvary, and as animated by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, was simply the invisible communion of all who were saved by Christ and were empowered in the Holy Spirit, but visible, it is true, in its local assemblies. Each individual congregation was a complete “Church,” dependent on no other assembly of the saved but in fellowship with all of them.
The Church was universal as the spiritual Body of Christ, with no head other than the same glorified Lord Jesus, made concrete and external in each local Church.
The Church which evolved in succeeding centuries changed radically in nature and demanded a ruling class that could teach, govern, and “sanctify” with an unquestioned authority —even an authority in practical terms equal to the authority of Jesus Christ Himself. To assume Christ’s authority vicariously in the Christian community it was expedient that there be a priestly caste empowered to perform the sacerdotal functions of Christ’s ministry.
Thus gradually was developed the idea of a New Testament priesthood, sharing in a unique manner the very priesthood of Jesus Christ, beyond the universal priesthood of worship possessed by all born-again Christians. How to create and perpetuate this exalted caste among a select group in the Church? Why a Sacrament of Orders, of course, to ordain chosen individuals into the “Christian mysteries.” And thus an empowering rite of ordination was conceived.
If we are going to have Christian priests, they must perform priestly functions. By definition a priest is a mediator between God and men. So he must be able to offer a sacrifice of mediation. There must then be an altar of sacrifice. And there must be forgiveness of sins!
Which brings us to the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, now also known in the post-conciliar Roman Church as the “Rite of Reconciliation,” through which a Christian’s sins are claimed to be forgiven.
We must without hesitation face squarely the Scriptural text invoked by Rome as the written source of the priest’s power to forgive sins. We read in the Gospel According to John, Chapter 20, Verses 21 to 23:
“Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
Admittedly an important but difficult text.
Gleefully the Catholic Church exclaims, “See, Christ gave His apostles power to forgive or not to forgive sins! All the powers the apostles had have been handed down to their successors in the Church, the bishops. Priests in turn share in the office of the bishop, who possesses the fulness of the priesthood. Therefore priests have the power to forgive sins.”
But wait a minute. In the context of this Scriptural quotation, it is specifically the disciples who are mentioned as being present when the risen Lord Jesus spoke those words. Apostles are not referred to, although all biblical scholars agree that some apostles were there, otherwise the remainder of John 20 would not make sense. So Christ spoke to a gathering of both disciples and apostles. Now Rome claims that only the apostles were the first priests ordained by Jesus.
What then of the disciples to whom the words were addressed? They were mere laymen according to Rome. Were they also given the faculty of forgiving sins? Rome can’t have it both ways; either priests and laymen were equally given that power, or the text means something else.
The above quotation follows the King James Version. What does the original Greek say? The words translated “forgiven” and “retained” are in the Greek in the perfect tense, indicating an action already performed. So the Greek should be translated accurately, “If you forgive the sins of any, they have been forgiven (already); if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained (already).”
So Rome’s interpretation reverses the order of the divine action. She says to her priests, “You can forgive sins and your decision will be ratified in heaven.” The Scripture says, “Sins already have been forgiven in heaven through acceptance of your proclamation of forgiveness by the blood of Jesus.”
It means in effect a disciple (any believer) can assure any sinner that his sins have been forgiven because he has come to Christ in repentant faith. Likewise, the disciple can assure any non-believer that his sins have not been forgiven because he has not trusted in Christ for his salvation.
This is not a labored exegesis of the text from John. It will be safe and certain to give to it no more power than does the remainder of the New Testament. Is there a single instance in the Scriptures of an apostle forgiving sins in the manner practiced by Rome in her Sacrament of Penance? Not one hint is there of that practice.
Did Peter give absolution to Cornelius? No! Did Paul give absolution to the Philippian jailer? No! They preached salvation to them and opened the way for them to receive forgiveness through Christ. In that sense the apostles “forgave” their sins. In no situation do we find the apostles calling for a personal confession to them followed by absolution.
That would be totally foreign to the New Testament proclamation of forgiveness through repentance, and faith in Jesus Christ. Peter stated as much in Acts 10:43, “To him (Jesus) give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” God has never given authority to any person to make a decision as forgiving or retaining another’s sins. Again we must recall the only Mediator between God and men is “the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).
Immediately after the New Testament years and in the beginning centuries of Church history, no Christian writer has left a record that the text of John 20:21-23 was used to support a concept of confessing sins to a clergyman and receiving absolution from him. Nor is there a record that the Church in general claimed the power to personally forgive sins through confession to a presbyter or elder.
The Church did not consider its presbyters (also known as bishops or “overseers”) to be priests in any sense. At that period it was the proud boast of Christians to the pagan world that they had neither altar nor sacrifice and therefore no priest.
The weird, diabolical truth is that the idea of confessing sins to a priest is of pre-Christian origin, having its source in the idolatrous Babylonian mystery cults:
“Babel, or Babylon, was built by Nimrod... It was the seat of the first great apostasy. Here the ‘Babylonian Cult’ was invented, a system claiming to...reveal the divinest secrets. Before a member could be initiated he had to ‘confess’ to the priest. The priest then had him in his power. This is the secret of the power of the priests of the Roman Catholic Church today.”
Before we consider how the pernicious requirement of confession was introduced into the Church, perhaps I should remind myself, and you, dear readers, that I am not attempting to write a scholarly theological and historical refutation of the errors of the Church of Rome.
Neither would I dare attempt a learned treatise on the theology of evangelical Christianity. For the latter I am eminently unqualified, being a novice, born-again Christian. But my heart burns that Christ and His salvation be made known to all who have labored under the heavy yoke of Catholicism, or who have been bruised by that yoke in any degree.
I want to cry out, “Fear not; that yoke can be cast off. You are Christ’s, and His yoke is sweet, His burden light.” So I must labor on.
Well then, we see that in no situation in the New Testament did the appointed overseers of Christ’s flock presume to forgive any man’s sins, even in the name of Jesus. Nor in the subapostolic first centuries did that vicious practice creep into nascent Christianity.
We readily concede that very early a system of public penance became prevalent in the Christian Churches. But let us be certain that it was a matter of community (Church) discipline. It was not a forgiveness of sin by any member of the ekklesia. It was a public acknowledgement that a Christian had sinned publicly; he was disciplined publicly and afterward he was readmitted to fellowship in the Church but only subsequent to forgiveness by Christ.
This is the element of penance that the Catholic Church is laboriously trying to reinsert into its Sacrament of Penance in our day. But as usual, Rome is trying to put new wine into old wineskins, retaining absolution by the human priest.
Remember that the early Christians were a light to their pagan neighbors. If a person accepted Christ, was reborn, and began a life in the Spirit, he was expected to be a luminous example to the world. If he unfortunately became a backslider of public notice, his fall was regarded most seriously by the Churches. His reconciliation with the Christian community was to be equally public. Therefore, with varying degrees in different geographic settings, and in response to fluctuating intensities of persecution by the pagan authorities, systems of public penance were instituted.
There was no centralized Church authority, but somewhat simultaneous procedures of discipline emerged throughout the scattered Christian body. The sins in question were most commonly known adultery, murder or the violent shedding of blood, and apostasy from the faith. Such sins were visible to the pagan majority; so their expiation was to be equally visible. Public sinners who repented sought forgiveness directly from Christ. Then they were required to “confess” publicly before the Christian assembly. They must in turn perform the penance imposed by the presbyter or bishop. Only then were they reconciled to Church fellowship.
Those procedures had a Scriptural warrant, as when Paul dealt with the Church at Corinth in the matter of backsliding Christians. But there was never a presumption of an elder or presbyter absolving a sinner of his public sins. It was unequivocally a public ratification of a forgiveness already granted by Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, as happened so frequently, those elements of public discipline were later solidified and incorporated into the Roman Catholic sacramental system. Our gracious Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ never intended to impose on his flock a burden of conscience such as was to later coalesce into the Roman Catholic required practice of confession of one’s sins to a priest to obtain forgiveness.
In the course of all that preoccupation with public penance, the run-of-the-mill Christian sinner, remember, received his forgiveness by constantly and privately confessing his sins directly to Jesus Christ.
According to Catholic teaching, a sacrament is an “outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.” Catholicism has had to stretch mightily to fulfill those conditions insofar as its Sacrament of Penance or “Confession” goes. We have considered the basic Scriptural text of John 20 and have seen that it does not stand. Primitive Roman Catholic doctrine came up with an astounding number of sacraments:
“The validity of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was never questioned in the early Church. However, the validity of other sacraments was in question for a long time. Confirmation and ordination were practiced as sacraments in the fifth century. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, held that foot-washing was a sacrament. Matrimony, penance, and extreme unction were added later. The present seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church were not fully established until the twelfth century.”
Some Catholic scholars insist that numerous passages in the writings of Augustine (died 430) deal with confession and penance. Martin Luther depended heavily on Augustine in formulating Reformation doctrines; he did not see the Roman sacrament lurking in Augustine’s works. The majority of historians, both Catholic and Protestant, today admit that Augustine offers no evidence for the existence of private penance with absolution. It is the old public penance of the Churches that he refers to.
“From an early period confession of sin was essential to church standing after a grievous fall. At first it was made publicly in church. But since this seemed to foment scandals, it tended from the days of Leo (440-461) to become a private confession before a priest. At that time confession was permitted but not compulsory. According to Fleury, a Roman Catholic historian, ‘the first time it was commanded’ was in 763 by a bishop of Metz.”
“By the 13th Century a type of penitential discipline had come to prevail in the Western Church which was widely different from that of the Patristic Age. Instead of being public and unusual, confession had become private, frequent, and common to all.”
It is a strange note of history that the unscriptural practice of confession was popularized among Christians in continental Europe by preaching Celtic monks from Ireland and Scotland during the 6th century.
Why all the above feverish disclaimers, as Rome will insist? Because “Confession” is one of the most binding of the Roman captivities, one of Satan’s strongest tools in the subjection of souls.
If Christ instituted a Sacrament of Penance, I want it to be clearly and unequivocally presented in the New Testament. I want it to be proclaimed lucidly by the Church fathers of the first centuries. I want it to be witnessed to constantly and consistently by believing Christians of the ages. I want it to be reaffirmed by the great Reformation leaders! But the Roman rite of compulsory confession lacks any such continuity. It is a tradition of men.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther proposed 95 theses to refute the shameful practice of the selling of indulgences by which the buyer would receive full remission of the punishment due in purgatory for his sins. Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg where vast crowds congregated. One of those Theses stated:
“Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, Repent ye! intended that the whole life of the believer should be penitence. This cannot be understood of sacramental penance, that is, of the confession and satisfaction which are performed under the ministry of priests.”
Roman Catholicism has never been quite the same since Luther posted those Theses on the Wittenberg door, and millions of souls in Luther’s wake have been freed from the bonds of sacramental confession.
The great theologian of the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, John Calvin, had an acute sense of the horror of the Sacrament of Penance; he devoted an entire chapter of his famed Institutes of the Christian Religion to pointing out its infamy. He goes to such length that one scarcely can decide what to choose from his refutation.
He begins by saying, “I will do this as briefly as possible,” and then proceeds with thousands upon thousands of words. Later on he writes:
“The whole comes to this, they (Roman Catholics) wish to make God the author of this fictitious confession, proving their vanity. I have shown their falsehood. But while it is plain that the law was imposed by men, I say that it is both tyrannical and insulting to God, who in binding consciences to His Word would have them free from human rule.
“So when confession is prescribed as necessary to obtain pardon...[I say] that the sacrilege is altogether intolerable, because nothing belongs more peculiarly to God than the forgiveness of sins, in which our salvation consists.”
I say, “Right on, John Calvin!” Would that the Christians who follow in his tradition today would see the abomination so clearly and rise up in indignation against it instead of playing ecumenical footsies with the Church that still demands it!
The gradual evolution from public discipline in the early Church to the defined, legalistic and obligatory confession to a priest reached its inevitable and disastrous fruit in the conditions which prevailed in the early 16th century. At that time Roman Catholic subjections of Christian consciences became intolerable, and in one of those rare, breathless moments of history God propelled Luther, Calvin and the other reformers onto the scene of Christian anguish. Our debt to them cannot be calculated.
As a former Roman Catholic layman who was subjected to that paralyzing practice, I say I loathed it and do to this moment. As a former Roman Catholic priest who presumed to place himself in judgment upon Christian souls and announce to them, “I absolve you,” or “I refuse to absolve you,” I recoil in horror at the remembrance. But my sin of blasphemy was forgiven when I was born again!
I dwell upon this matter of “Who can forgive sins?” again not because it now presents problems to me. As I have told you, I did forsake the obligation of confession some time before I left the priesthood. I knew that Jesus Christ did not hand on to His disciples His unique power as the Son of Man to forgive sins. I pursue the question because it is another of the major obstacles that Catholicism erects between the believer and his Saviour. In my witness since I have been reborn into the evangelical Christian fellowship, Catholic and ex-Catholic inquirers have placed this problem high on their area of concern.
A year ago a former Catholic police officer who was seeking Christ and who knew I was a former priest, asked me, “Can a priest forgive sins?” When he received my most definite negative reply, he was relieved and happy. He responded, “Neither do I believe it!” The officer has since been led to the Lord by Jim MacKinnon.
So be assured if you have been a victim of the Roman Sacrament of Penance. You may rest in the knowledge that there was no official Roman pronouncement that ‘Christ instituted seven sacraments and that Penance was one of the seven’ until many centuries after the New Testament was written. If the Holy Spirit moves you to discard the practice of confession to a priest from your life, you have not denied a Christ-ordained sacrament. You are abandoning a tradition of men, manufactured by churchmen. I think instinctively you may know that. Admittedly I have deep animosity toward auricular confession.
I attribute the animosity, however, to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, not to any psychological quirk that prevents me from submitting my sins to the judgment of another human being. It is not necessary for me to assure former Catholics that they are happy to have given up the enforced practice of confession. They know their immense relief.
Voluntary confession of sin by one believer to another for purposes of counseling or edification can be very salutary and is Scriptural:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “ (I John 1:9)
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed...” (James 5:16)
But voluntary confession for mutual upbuilding has nothing in common with the hateful “Sacrament” we have been reviewing.
Should a Roman Catholic spiritual director chance upon these pages, he may hasten in his preconceived spiritual straitjacket to claim I was a victim of scrupulosity when I sought the comfort of the Sacrament of Penance in my early years. He will tell you that a scrupulous penitent sees sin where there is no sin, and serious sin when it is only venial or minor.
I affirm that I was not scrupulous but conscientious. I was attempting to “save my soul.” And any Catholic who tries conscientiously to live the moral and disciplinary norms of his Church will experience difficulty with the practice of required confession to a priest. And that is because, quite simply, the confessional diminishes or destroys the liberty of the sons of God which Christ gained for us.
The wondrous claims of peace, comfort and spiritual growth advanced by Rome in favor of its Sacrament of Penance are largely mirages. It is true I sometimes experienced a feeling of peace immediately after confession, but it was not an abiding peace. My experience as a priest led me to observe that Catholics, both clerical and lay, who were devoted to the practice of confession were mostly pious misfits or neurotic church-haunters.
The clear-eyed, steady and sensible Catholics detested the Sacrament and wished to escape its oppressive weight. I am certain that vast numbers of Catholics have covertly come to the realization that the sacrament is not of divine origin and have secretly discontinued the burden of the rite.
Today the Sacrament of Penance in the Roman Church, and especially in the United States, appears to be in a shambles. The Second Vatican Council recommended that the rite be revised to reincorporate the aspect of public reconciliation with the community, which we have seen was the idea in the early Church.
At the prodding of the liberals at the Council and of those who have been in charge of the liturgical mayhem in the Roman Church since the Council, the sacrament is now self-consciously called the Rite of Reconciliation. The basic flawed theology and the false historical assumptions remain, though the externals of the thing have been notably altered. The text of the absolution itself has been changed to read: “In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ who by his passion and resurrection reconciled the world to His Father, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I absolve you from your sins and I reconcile you to the Church.”
The revised rite provides for communal penance services in addition to the conventional one-upon-one encounter in the confession box. But even in the communal service each penitent must confess his sins privately to the priest after the communal service. So, externals have been altered, the noxious core remains.
The state of shambles is to some degree the result of the loss of respect suffered by the Catholic bishops since the Council. Their priests no longer feel constrained to obey them in all things. Now that would be a fine and healthy development if the dissenting priests were solid in their basic Christian beliefs. But that is not so. The priest who tampers with Rome’s revised rite is apt to be your liberal priest who does not accept the divinity of Christ, His Virgin Birth and Bodily Resurrection, nor the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.
The bishops are powerless to control the antics of some of their new-breed priests. So, even though the rite and its rubrics are spelled out clearly by Rome, its practical implementation may vary from diocese to diocese, and even from parish to parish, depending upon what priest is in charge. Official Rome is frantic, the laity are confused or joyful as the case may be, and Satan has his day. But any chink in the massive, heretical sacramental system of Rome is a sign of hope.
We ex-Catholics don’t miss the Sacrament of Penance. Its total collapse in the Roman Church is our earnest prayer. Remember, the Sacrament of Penance lacerates, but Jesus heals; the Sacrament of Penance binds consciences, but Jesus loosens them; the Sacrament of Penance terrorizes, but Jesus gives comfort.
Let us uncompromisingly and forever cast away the diabolical chains of a man-made so-called sacrament. Our compassionate and forgiving Lord Jesus Christ will then take over His rightful power as the only source of release from the bonds of sin.